[In this series, I’m exploring why, beyond Christians’ political efforts to prohibit same-sex marriage, traditional Christian sexual ethics on homosexuality (and the people who profess them) have become so offensive and problematic for people who don’t profess them. Start by reading the series introduction.]
Second, Christians often haven’t worked hard enough to counteract harmful, hateful messages that misrepresent the gospel and the nature of God.
Misty Irons levels straightforward criticism against evangelical leaders who have been too slow and too quiet in their repentance away from past mistakes related to the LGBT community, mistakes like using the pulpit to make vitriolic and inaccurate statements about the gay community:
“It’s great that many evangelicals are beginning to realize that they need to change their attitude toward gays. They have more gay friends and acquaintances and are being forced to rethink old prejudices. But at the same time, since when are we justified in sinning loudly and repenting in secret? If we have spoken lies about our neighbor, aren’t we obligated to make it right by being equally outspoken about the truth that would bring healing to those wounds?
“For the most part, many of our evangelical leaders have taken the following tack: 1) Pretend you didn’t publicly say all those horrific things against homosexuals in the past. 2) Quietly adjust and moderate your views without acknowledging your sin or apologizing to anyone. 3) Then get all indignant and offended when an outsider mistakes you as one of those anti-gay ‘extremists,’ even though that’s exactly what you used to be not long ago.
“Until our most visible evangelical leaders drop the old derriere-covering act and lead a significant movement of repentance in our midst, evangelicals do deserve to be portrayed as collectively anti-gay. Because wounding somebody deeply, then refusing to make apology or restitution to them is a form of hatred. It’s not love, is it?”
Irons hits the nail on the head. Christians often haven’t done enough to repent of past hatred they’ve committed. Instead of apologizing, they just gradually became less vicious, assuming non-Christians were paying attention and would pick up on the subtle attitude shift. Many Christians become defensive when someone suggests that, in light of past mistakes they’ve made, it may be time to change their messaging, to move away from condemnatory declarations about sexuality and toward supportive proclamations of God’s unconditional love. The response is usually predictable: If the traditional Christian sexual ethic really is the best sexual ethic, then it would be unloving not to call people to repent from sinful behaviors, right? I think that attitude errs by miscalculating shared assumptions.
Here’s what I mean: Whenever Christians talk to each other about sin, they’re doing so in the shared language of God’s gracious, merciful, abundant love. When one Christian confronts sin in the life of another Christian, the underlying assumption is that they both know beyond a shadow of a doubt God loves them very, very much, and as a result of God’s love for them, God provides them with certain behavioral standards. These aren’t just arbitrary rules; they’re rhythms that are deeply connected to threads of meaning and significance God has sewn into creation. So, in the best of circumstances, Christians confront sin in the lives of other Christians not as a means of shaming or inducing guilt but as a means of guiding others back into harmony with God’s order as they mutually perceive it. So, what happens when you remove all of those assumptions? What happens when Christians start confronting behaviors they perceive as sin (or legislating against those behaviors) in the lives of others who don’t share those same huge, foundational assumptions about God’s gracious, merciful, abundant love or those same perceptions of God’s order? It’s quite simple: They come across as arbitrary rules. They feel oppressive and restrictive and irrelevant. In no way do they communicate anything resembling love, not by anyone’s definition of the word. Quite often, they resemble love’s opposite.
(And let’s make one thing unmistakably clear: People outside the church are not the only ones who lack those assumptions about whether God actually loves every person. Many gay Christians—with me at the front of the line—have struggled mightily to believe in their heads and hearts that, yes, God does love us. Many gay Christians still haven’t been able to convince themselves that’s true.)
This isn’t a Trojan horse of loud platitudes meant to lure people into a secretly homophobic environment. It’s merely a question of which message conservative Christians think is more important for people to comprehend at a gut level: that God loves everyone, or that gay sex is sinful. Right now, Christians tend to assume people know God loves them, so they spend their time megaphoning their counter-cultural sexual ethics. I’d argue we’ve reached a point in our culture when Christians need to flip that approach: Everyone seems to be quite familiar with traditional Christian sexual ethics (or at least some caricature of them), but the question of whom God loves has become a matter of debate. God’s love and a conservative sex ethic aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive—ask any gay Christian who contently abstains from gay sex—but until Christians discover the delicate method of proclaiming both concepts in perfect harmony, it’s worth considering which one they’re most concerned with people getting right. When a gay senior graduates from your youth group and heads away to college, which message do you want closest to her heart: that God loves her, or that God doesn’t want her to have sex with a woman?
Whichever message is more important to conservative Christians will determine how they use their time and energy. Should a conservative church spend its resources counteracting the rhetoric of Westboro Baptist Church or of the Human Rights Campaign? The answer to that question speaks volumes about whose message the church thinks is more destructive, and it proclaims loudly and clearly to a watching world where God—the God whom Christians claim to represent—stands.
#2: Muddled Messages
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